THE SLUM KILLINGS. The Auckland suburb of Freemans Bay was long feared as a breeding ground of sickness, crime and unrest. In 1951, the city council decided on a slum-clearance plan. Dilapidated, cheek-by-jowl hovels would be replaced with modern, terraced housing and green spaces. On the slopes below Nelson St, commercial and industrial buildings would be erected. The motorway later ploughed its wide path through the area. The Herald looks back at six killings connected with the central city in the 1940s and 50s

It was four days before Christmas and mother-of-three Barbara Mary Wingrove got her three young children ready to see Santa.

A 24-year-old widow who lived in the Auckland suburb of Westmere, Wingrove and the kids were staying with her mother, Minnie Matthews, at 67 Cook St in the central city for Christmas.

Barbara's mother and brother had gone to work and she sent her 8-year-old niece to check when Santa would arrive at a hall in town.

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When the niece arrived home she found the door locked. She climbed in a window and was confronted by the first sign of an unfolding family tragedy: Barbara had tried to gas herself and was unconscious.

She ran to Minnie's workplace, a shop in Hobson St, and fetched her home.

Minnie found Barbara's daughter Stephanie, 2, covered in blood. Son Stephen Ralph, 5, was lying dead in the kitchen and his brother Peter Harvey, 4, was unconscious and under a bed. The boys' throats had been cut.

Barbara and Stephanie, both of whom had knife wounds, were taken to hospital and survived. Peter died from his injuries on the way to hospital.

Stephanie's wounds were superficial cuts, most of which required stitching, and she was in hospital a fortnight. Barbara remained in hospital for a further week.

The long-gone house at 67 Cook St, central Auckland where the Wingrove boys were fatally injured in December 1949. Photo / Herald archives
The long-gone house at 67 Cook St, central Auckland where the Wingrove boys were fatally injured in December 1949. Photo / Herald archives
The site of the Minnie Matthews' house at 67 Cook St in central Auckland is now a carpark for the City Works Depot. Photo / Martin Johnston
The site of the Minnie Matthews' house at 67 Cook St in central Auckland is now a carpark for the City Works Depot. Photo / Martin Johnston

In December 1949 when Barbara Wingrove had lost all hope and tried to end it all for her children and herself, Cook St was a run-down residential area which was already on the radar of the Auckland City Council for all the wrong reasons.

Two years later the area was included in the council's Freemans Bay slum clearance plans.

The council decided to put the bulldozer through to make way for modern, terraced housing and, on the slopes below Nelson St - where Minnie Matthews' home stood - industrial and commercial development.

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The motorway that later ploughed through the central city marked the border between the two clearance zones.

Minnie's house would have been on the edge of the land where the council built its City Works Depot, which is now a precinct of shops and restaurants described as "industrial and chic".


Herald report of the jury's verdict in Barbara Wingrove's murder trial. Source / Herald archives

Barbara was 17 when she married Stephen Wingrove in the early 1940s during World War II. He soon after went overseas in the Army but stowed away on an American plane to return to New Zealand. Court-martialled, he served six months of his sentence.

Barbara had sought separation from Stephen, but a magistrate wouldn't permit it.

In September 1947 Stephen got into a scuffle at a pub in Victoria St. The fight spilled outside and, tottering backwards, Stephen was punched hard on the jaw and fell to the pavement, his head hitting with what a witness called "a nasty crunch".

He was taken to hospital but refused to be admitted and was taken home. Barbara called a doctor when his condition deteriorated the next morning. He had surgery but died of his head injury.

The man he was alleged to have fought with, William Joseph Kelly, a 31-year-old seaman and driver, was found not guilty of manslaughter and not guilty of assault.

Read more:
Killings in an Auckland slum - Freemans Bay and the inner west side
Auckland bride Mary Eileen Jones killed by 'British secret service' fraudster
Aucklander who killed for love sentenced to life for manslaughter
Aucklander Lee Hoy Chong killed for $200 and a packet of opium
The killings in Auckland's Queen St that fuelled a moral panic

When Barbara was tried for the murder of her boys, evidence was given that she had become "nervy" and constantly felt ill after her husband's death and she worried about not having enough money on the widow's pension to raise her children.

In today's money, her weekly income was about $385 and her rent was $95.

"There was some trouble about money she should have received from her husband's estate," Minnie told the Supreme Court jury.

Barbara was described as pale and slight at the earlier committal hearing, where she held a hankie to her face and sobbed quietly.

The police had found a note to "My dear Mummy" on the back of a calendar that Barbara later admitted writing to Minnie in which she said she thought she was going mad, how she couldn't live without her children, and that she would have to take them with her.

She signed off with, "All my love, Barbara and the babies."

She claimed in the note to have been swindled out of £2000 (about $146,700 today).

To the police, she admitted killing Stephen, but couldn't remember anything after that.

She pleaded not guilty to murder, but her lawyer, T. Henry, argued she should be found free of criminal responsibility.

"We do not say she was insane in the ordinary legal technical way, but we do say that Mrs Wingrove temporarily lost all sense of responsibility, and the problems of her tragic life at last overtook her and caused her mind to snap."

Justice John Callan sent the jury's mercy plea to the Attorney-General. Photo / S. P. Andrew, Alexander Turnbull Library
Justice John Callan sent the jury's mercy plea to the Attorney-General. Photo / S. P. Andrew, Alexander Turnbull Library

Justice John Callan, however, dismissed what he called the defence's intermediate plea of "frenzy". The jury must disregard a plea that Wingrove "was not criminally responsible" because such a finding would be equivalent to a finding that she was insane.

The jury found her guilty, and pleaded for mercy.

But the judge had no legal leeway and he sentenced Barbara to life imprisonment with hard labour. However, he said he would send a special report, including the jury's request, to the Attorney-General.

The gravestone for the Wingrove boys at Waikumete Cemetery. Photo / Martin Johnston
The gravestone for the Wingrove boys at Waikumete Cemetery. Photo / Martin Johnston

Wingrove was eventually sent to a mental hospital. She escaped in December 1957 and was at liberty for three days, before being found at Titirangi.

Aucklander Glen Kirk, 70, told the Herald the Wingroves and Matthews were friends of his family.

His parents told him that Barbara Wingrove was publicly reviled - she was spat on and the windows of her home were smashed.

"When she was sent to Mt Eden prison and sentenced to hard labour, my parents petitioned to have her sent elsewhere as she was not coping with the work in the prison laundry.

"She was eventually sent to Kingseat Hospital [in South Auckland] and was given a partial lobotomy. Even so she was released in the early 1960s and got a job working for Smith and Caughey's."

Official records indicate Barbara Wingrove died in 2016. She was buried with her mother at Waikumete Cemetery in West Auckland. A small, white cross bearing Wingrove's name stands beside her boys' grave.

A small white cross marks Barbara Wingrove's grave beside her boys' gravestone at Waikumete Cemetery. Photo / Martin Johnston
A small white cross marks Barbara Wingrove's grave beside her boys' gravestone at Waikumete Cemetery. Photo / Martin Johnston

The series

• Govind Ranchhod, April 1949

• Lee Hoy Chong, May 1950

• Stephen and Peter Wingrove, December 1949

• Eileen Turner, July 1942

• Alan Jacques, July 1955, Sharon Skiffington, March 1955